See for Yourself How Polluted Stormwater Reaches Mashapaug Pond

Sep 30, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

It’s raining in Providence right now. And that means water is running across the city’s rooftops, roads, and parking lots, picking up pollutants like oil and animal waste, and depositing them into water bodies like Mashapaug Pond. The term for this polluted rainwater is stormwater runoff, and it’s one of the reasons Mashapaug Pond has been unfit for swimming and fishing for decades.

I’ve told you before about CLF’s lawsuit seeking to fix this problem by getting EPA to curb pollution from stormwater runoff, as the Clean Water Act requires.  Now, though, I’d like to show you what this runoff looks like.

This morning I visited Mashapaug Pond and took some videos of water running into the pond from the industrial park on its northwest shore. Below, you can watch them and I’ll tell you a little bit about what you’re seeing.

First, some of the rainwater runs across the rooftops of the broad, flat buildings in the industrial park. The water pours off the roof from downspouts onto a paved area behind the buildings and right next to the pond. It flows across the pavement, through a narrow bit of greenery, and into the pond.

Here’s a closer view of the water running across the pavement toward the pond:

Elsewhere in the industrial park, water runs across parking lots, driveways, and roads, and into storm drains:

After water enters these drains, it joins with water from other storm drains and surges into the pond through outfalls like this one (located at a public park just next to the industrial park):

Just imagine how much pollution is being carried along by that rushing water into this one fragile pond in Rhode Island – then multiply that by the thousands of rivers, lakes, and ponds throughout New England and you begin to understand the scale of the stormwater runoff problem and its impact on the health of our waters.

This is not the way things have to work. Here in Rhode Island, if EPA lets the owners of the commercial and industrial property around Mashapaug Pond know that they need stormwater-discharge permits, then those property owners will have to take steps to clean up or eliminate their runoff to the pond. And this is exactly what we’re asking EPA to do with our lawsuit.

So, now that you’ve had a chance to see for yourself how polluted stormwater reaches Mashapaug Pond, please join me and my CLF colleagues in telling EPA: now is the time to do something about stormwater pollution in Mashapaug Pond.

To learn more about the impact of stormwater on Mashapaug Pond, watch my short video here:

Blue-Green Algae Causes Burlington Beach Closure

Jul 16, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Monday’s closure of two popular beaches in Burlington is a stark reminder of why Vermont’s focus on water quality is so timely and important. Sightings of blue-green algae along the Burlington shoreline prompted low alert warnings last Friday and led to beach closures in the area earlier this week.

A quick response to these sightings is vital since certain types of blue-green algae produce toxins that are harmful to people and their pets. Exposure can result in skin irritations, liver damage, and neurological disease. Large blooms of blue-green algae also negatively impact the environment by depleting oxygen levels in the surrounding water when they decay – killing fish and other aquatic plants. .

These blooms form during the summer months of long hours of sunlight and warm water temperature in lakes and ponds with excess nutrients like phosphorus. The problem is especially acute on Lake Champlain, where the high concentration of phosphorus comes largely from human activity in the watershed, including stormwater runoff from developed areas, agricultural practices, and wastewater treatment facilities.

Water advocates, including Ben and Jerry’s and The Waterwheel Foundation, have joined with CLF to reduce the impact of these human activities on the lake.

This summer, Vermonters are particularly attuned to water quality challenges following the passage of a clean water bill earlier this year. While not perfect, the legislation is a significant step towards reducing the high levels of phosphorus that plague our waterways . As new programs are put in place, CLF will continue to negotiate tight controls for pollutants in Lake Champlain and across the state.

Unfortunately, beach closures like the ones in Burlington this week aren’t limited to Vermont. CLF has recently filed a lawsuit in Rhode Island to remedy the regular closure of some of the state’s most popular beaches. Water pollution is a regional challenge, and CLF will continue to fight for clean, healthy waters throughout New England.

Portsmouth to Proceed with Long-Awaited, New Sewage Treatment Plant

Jun 22, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The Portsmouth, New Hampshire, City Council recently reaffirmed its commitment to build a new sewage treatment plant at the site of the present antiquated facility on Peirce Island. Completion of the long-awaited upgrade may still be a few years away, though it could have happened sooner if the City had elected to shift its plans to a location at the Pease Tradeport. But the decision to rebuild at Peirce Island is still good news for the Piscataqua River and Great Bay estuary, which can’t afford further delay.Google PI

Portsmouth’s current sewage plant at Peirce Island is still failing to meet one of the most basic requirements of the Clean Water Act – so-called “secondary treatment” to reduce suspended solids and other pollution. While EPA has provided a ramp-up period to achieve that standard, until the upgrade is completed, it continues to exceed Clean Water Act discharge levels by 475 tons per year of total suspended solids and 877 tons per year of biological oxygen-demanding pollution. And, the plant’s potentially high discharges of bacteria and viruses have resulted in the closure of the shellfish beds in Little Harbor and along the Atlantic coast south to Odiorne Point. Upgrading Peirce Island to modern standards, and addressing these and other pollutants, is critical to restoring the health of our estuary.

We’ve worked for years to ensure progress at Portsmouth’s Peirce Island sewage treatment plant – one of the largest controllable sources of pollution in the estuary. We’re pleased to see the City Council avoiding the further delays that would have resulted from a last-minute change of plan, and we’ll continue to work to ensure the project stays on track. As towns like Exeter and Newmarket make progress upgrading their sewage treatment facilities, it’s important that the Seacoast’s largest city does the same.

EPA Video Highlights Long Creek Restoration Project in Maine

May 21, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released a new video telling the story of the restoration of Maine’s Long Creek, which winds through South Portland’s busy Maine Mall area and empties into Casco Bay.

Before CLF took action seven years ago, polluted stormwater would drain off of the Maine Mall area’s many paved surfaces – like parking lots and flat roofs – and flow into Long Creek, killing aquatic life. In 2008, CLF petitioned EPA and asked it to issue a permit requiring area businesses to clean up the pollution. EPA issued the permit, and since then landowners, municipalities, and other stakeholders have worked together to form the Long Creek Restoration Partnership. Under the permit, property owners have completed a number of restoration projects, including repaving an area of roadway with porous material to allow rainwater to filter through the earth and planting buffers between parking lots and streams. Recently, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection reissued the General Permit. Read about the Long Creek Restoration Project and about CLF’s work on Long Creek, and watch the video below to see how a polluted creek can be restored and the surrounding area beautified.

Defending the Charles River from Stormwater Pollution

Mar 12, 2015 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

In February, CLF and the Charles River Watershed Association filed a notice of intent to sue the EPA for failing to uphold the Clean Water Act and requiring large, privately owned stormwater polluters to obtain permits for their dirty discharge.

EPA’s responsibility is clear: to ensure that our waterways are safe for drinking, swimming, and fishing. The agency’s failure to require polluters to control their runoff puts the Charles’ water quality at risk and places an unfair burden on cities, towns, and, ultimately, taxpayers, to foot the bill for managing stormwater pollution.

Kelp Forest at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine

CLF is asking the EPA to hold polluters accountable for unregulated stormwater discharge, which is harming the Charles River. Photo: Charles River Watershed Association.

In part due to improvements in water pollution, the Charles River today is an incredible recreational and ecological resource flowing through the heart of Boston and surrounding communities. On any given summer day, you’ll see scores of people sailing, boating, kayaking, and fishing its waters. But the reality is, for all the progress made in cleaning up this iconic river in recent decades, significant threats to its health remain, including polluted stormwater runoff.

Along the Charles’ 80-mile course from Hopkinton to Boston Harbor you’ll find thousands of acres of strip malls, office parks, and other industrial development – along with flat roofs and huge parking lots (80% of the land area in Greater Boston is paved). All those impermeable surfaces add up to trouble when it rains or, as is happening now, snow melts.

Back when the Charles flowed through a largely natural landscape, that rain and snowmelt would have been absorbed by the ground and filtered of pollutants long before it drained into the river. Today, though, stormwater rushes off those mirror-like impermeable surfaces, picking up debris, fertilizer, and other toxic pollution along the way. The result: a contaminated soup of dirty water draining into the Charles and other rivers, lakes, and streams across New England.

The worst part of the problem? EPA not only knows who the biggest privately owned stormwater dischargers are, it also has the legal authority to hold them accountable. In fact, the Clean Water Act requires known stormwater polluters to obtain a permit for their discharge. But EPA has failed to uphold this basic responsibility.

By not enforcing the law, EPA is leaving cash-strapped cities and towns – and all of us as taxpayers – on the hook for the costs of this damaging pollution. And those costs are big. One of the most harmful pollutants swept into the river with stormwater is phosphorus. Too much phosphorus in the water can lead to massive blue-green algae outbreaks, which are toxic to people, pets, and wildlife. This is just one reason why the Charles is so often subject to closures and advisories for fish contamination and unsafe swimming and boating.

The bottom line is that stormwater pollution is hurting the river, the wildlife that depend on it to be healthy, and the communities that pay when it’s not. A successful outcome to this lawsuit will mean that hundreds of commercial, industrial, and institutional polluters will finally be required to obtain permits. Those permits would not only control the stormwater pollution those businesses can discharge, but also ensure they are paying their fair share of the costs for its management.

The Charles River will never truly be healthy until stormwater pollution – and the industrial offenders responsible for it – are brought under control. It’s time for EPA to step up and enforce the law and set the Charles on the final road to recovery once and for all.

For more background information please see Conservation Law Foundation’s briefing on stormwater pollution in New England, “Closing the Clean Water Gap: Protecting our Waterways by Making All Polluters Pay.”

CLF Bringing Suit to Address Stormwater in Rhode Island

Mar 12, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

A few weeks ago, CLF initiated a lawsuit that seeks to require EPA to do its job under the Clean Water Act and clean up stormwater pollution in Rhode Island. This lawsuit has the potential to be a very big deal.

What is stormwater pollution?

When heavy rain falls and snow melts, water runs across paved surfaces, picks up nasty pollutants like oil, feces, and heavy metals, and eventually flows into Rhode Island’s ponds and rivers, the Narragansett Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean. Rhode Island is densely populated, has a lot of paved surfaces – about 12% of the state, in fact – and there’s not a spot in this tiny, coastal state that’s far from water. This means that there’s a lot of polluted runoff flowing into a lot of water bodies in Rhode Island. Because of stormwater pollution, many of Rhode Island’s ponds and rivers are not fit for swimming, fishing, or even serving as wildlife habitat.


Mashapaug Pond is so polluted that it’s closed to fishing and swimming. CLF’s suit is a critical step in helping restore the ailing pond to health.

That sounds bad.

It is! And it’s worse some places than others. For example, stormwater pollution causes algae growth in Providence’s Mashapaug Pond, choking aquatic life and – because of highly toxic blue-green algae – making the pond unfit for human contact.

On Aquidneck Island, stormwater pollution causes high bacteria levels in Bailey’s Brook. The polluted water from the Brook flows through North Easton Pond and South Easton Pond and ends up at Newport’s very popular First Beach. As a result, the water at First Beach is rarely clean and the state Department of Health must close the beach several times each year during the busy summer season. These situations aren’t unique; other water bodies near Mashapaug Pond and on Aquidneck Island suffer similar harm as a result of stormwater pollution.

How do we know all this?

In legally required studies and analyses, Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has documented just how stormwater is harming Mashapaug Pond, Bailey’s Brook, North Easton Pond, and other nearby water bodies. In particular, DEM has concluded that these water bodies have been damaged by stormwater runoff from heavily paved commercial and industrial properties. EPA has formally approved each of these DEM studies after careful consideration.

So what’s the lawsuit all about?

When EPA approved the DEM studies for Mashapaug Pond, Bailey’s Brook, North Easton Pond, and other nearby water bodies, it legally determined that stormwater runoff from commercial and industrial properties was harming these water bodies. Under the Clean Water Act, this kind of determination means that these commercial and industrial dischargers must apply for permits for their stormwater discharges. And under EPA’s own Clean Water Act regulations, the agency must notify the dischargers that they need permits.

EPA hasn’t done this. CLF is suing to make sure EPA does its job.

That all sounds kind of abstract.

CLF’s success in this case will result in major and very tangible benefits. When commercial and industrial stormwater dischargers enter the Clean Water Act’s permit program, they have to take steps to clean up their stormwater discharges. In Rhode Island, this stormwater permitting program is managed – and managed well – by DEM. CLF’s lawsuit would likely result in hundreds of new dischargers entering the stormwater permitting program.

This means much less pollution flowing into water bodies like Mashapaug Pond, Bailey’s Brook, and North Easton Pond. The long-term result will be swimmable, fishable waters that provide suitable habitat for wildlife. And that would be a very big deal.


For more background information please see Conservation Law Foundation’s briefing on stormwater pollution in New England, “Closing the Clean Water Gap: Protecting our Waterways by Making All Polluters Pay.”


Apr 9, 2014 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Riding the single chair ski lift to 3637′ summit of General Stark’s Mountain at Mad River Glen is among my life’s great pleasures. The lift pulls you ever upward through the forest at treetop height. You sit comfortably in solitude soaking it all in. The experience imparts a sense of serenity that competes with the giddy anticipation of the long, fast descent that awaits. The best moment comes when your chair attains the elevation that affords you a sweeping panoramic view over the spine of the Green Mountains to the shimmering shores of Lake Champlain that lie beyond, stretching northward in the distance to the Canadian border. It is a compelling visual reminder that “The Lake Starts Here.”


Watershed Perspective: Lake Champlain seen in the background from the summit of General Stark’s Mountain

When the snow melts it flows downhill into one of the many Vermont rivers that feed into Lake Champlain. These rivers and the mountains, forests, farms, and developed areas that drain into them are the Lake’s watershed. Credit for the clever hashtag #LakeStartsHere goes to our angler amigos at Lake Champlain International who are working in concert with the Vermont Ski Areas Association to raise “watershed” awareness among Vermonters and our visitors through a contest featuring photos like the one at right. The idea is to help people make connections between the snow they ski on in the winter and the water they drink, swim, fish, and boat on in the summer; as the seasons turn one becomes the other.

Watershed awareness is sorely needed at this critical moment in the history of Lake Champlain cleanup. While the Lake is a drinking water source for nearly 200,000 people and a recreation destination for thousands more, it is too often out of sight out of mind for many Vermonters who do not live in communities that touch the Lake’s shores. Yet the polluted runoff from farms, logging sites, roads, parking lots, industrial sites, downtowns, strip malls, and housing developments along with the polluted wastewater from those upstream communities all contribute to the clean water crisis (e.g., toxic blue-green algae blooms, noxious weed growth, fish kills) facing one of the nation’s largest freshwater lakes.

The Clean Water Act and Vermont’s own state water quality laws require everyone to do their part for cleanup. The laws are based on the wise premise, beautifully articulated by poet Wendell Berry, that we must do unto our downstream neighbors as we would have our upstream neighbors do unto us. At some point we all live downstream and, more importantly, we all benefit from clean water.

Fortunately, many of the pollution control measures Vermonters must undertake to clean up Lake Champlain will benefit local waterways and community bottom lines too.

  • When upstream farmers prevent manure runoff and soil erosion they not only reduce the amount of phosphorus flowing downstream to Lake Champlain, they also keep water free of harmful bacteria that can make local swimming holes unsafe and reduce sediment that clogs fish habitat.
  • When municipalities upgrade culverts and line ditches along their gravel roads they reduce erosion of phosphorus-laden sediments and also reduce the amount of money spent on road maintenance over the long term.
  • When real estate developers install “green stormwater infrastructure” at shopping plazas and housing developments, they reduce overall flows of phosphorus runoff flowing downstream to the Lake and at the same time reduce flash flooding risks in local rivers and streams caused by the artificial concentration of runoff from an overpaved landscape.
  • When ski areas maintain or restore robust buffers on high mountain streams, they minimize the local erosion hazards that result from clearing
    trails and reduce pollutants that flow downstream.

In the wake of CLF’s precedent-setting lawsuit and settlement with EPA seeking a truly effective and comprehensive cleanup framework for Lake Champlain, the administration of Governor Peter Shumlin and EPA officials are wrestling with the final details of a new plan. CLF is playing an active watchdog role to ensure that Governor Shumlin, the state legislature, and EPA officials live up to their responsibilities under our clean water laws by holding all contributing pollution sources accountable to do their part. If and when they do, we can launch a new watershed-wide photo contest: #ACleanLakeStartsHere.

CLF Settlement Maintains Momentum on Stream Cleanup

Oct 8, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

For more than a decade, CLF has worked to secure the Clean Water Act’s promise of water quality that supports healthy fish populations and is safe for recreation in all the degraded urban streams flowing to Lake Champlain. A new CLF settlement with Vermont environmental regulators helps continue the momentum toward fulfillment of that promise.

Several years ago, CLF won a series of court cases that resulted in Vermont adopting pollution reduction targets for urban streams afflicted with an excess of fouled runoff. Some of that polluted runoff comes from the network of storm sewers and pipes owned by cities and towns. The runoff in these “municipal separate storm sewer systems” can contain a range of harmful pollutants including:

  • sediment
  • road salt
  • oil slicks (those toxic rainbow slicks left behind by leaking cars)
  • toxic metals
  • bacteria (from animal waste)
  • heat (think of how hot pavement gets in the summer–that heat transfers into rainwater coursing over blacktop)
  • phosphorous (the key culprit in causing algae blooms in Lake Champlain)

In addition, these storm sewers are often too efficient at clearing rainwater and snowmelt from paved surfaces.  The result can be flash flooding in streams swollen by unusually heavy flows caused by our artificial manipulation of the natural landscape’s drainage.


Green Infrastructure helps soak up precipitation and filter out pollutants running off paved surfaces. As an added bonus, these pollution control measures make urban environments look nicer and can help mitigate flash flooding. Photo Credit: Vermont Agency of Natural Resources


Scientists who developed the pollution reduction targets for Vermont’s urban streams have determined that there is a strong link between the overall amount of runoff being discharged and the amount of pollution reaching streams. The solution is to slow the flow and allow more precipitation to soak into the ground rather than run off paved surfaces.  When placed in enough locations throughout our built landscape, “Green Infrastructure” such as rain gardens, permeable pavement, and constructed wetlands can restore the land’s natural ability to soak up precipitation and filter out pollutants before they reach streams.

Earlier this year, CLF challenged the permit regulating discharges of polluted runoff from numerous municipal storm sewers throughout Vermont. The permit is one of the main mechanisms for translating runoff reduction targets into on-the-ground pollution control measures like green infrastructure. Under the challenged permit, each polluting municipality designs its own cleanup plan, determining which pollution control measures to deploy and where to deploy them so as to achieve maximum runoff reduction. Unfortunately, the final version of the permit gave polluting municipalities up to twenty years to clean up their acts and also prevented meaningful public review of the cleanup plans each polluting city and town was devising for itself.

In response to these flaws, CLF challenged the permit. Fortunately, after extended settlement negotiations, Vermont environmental officials agreed that the permit needed fixing to ensure timely, transparent, and accountable cleanup efforts by each regulated city and town. The parties devised a settlement that addresses the flaws in the original permit related to the timing and transparency of the cleanup plans. First, Vermont officials have agreed that each municipality’s proposed cleanup plan will be subject to public notice and comment before agency approval, creating an opportunity for citizens to appeal any inadequate cleanup plans to the Environmental Court. Second, Vermont officials agreed to rescind the blanket twenty-year timeframe for cleanup plan completion contained in the original permit. Instead, Vermont regulators will make an individualized decision about the appropriateness of a schedule of compliance for each plan; those decisions will also be subject to public notice, comment, and appeal when necessary. The settlement maintains momentum in the restoration process for these streams and restores bedrock procedural public participation safeguards that are hallmarks of the Clean Water Act.

Vermont Recommits to the Clean Water Act

Jul 19, 2013 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Yesterday, EPA sent Vermont’s clean water agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation, a Clean Water Act “Corrective Action Plan,” outlining permitting and enforcement improvements and updates the state has made or needs to make to ensure that the state provides all the protections required by law to its citizens and the waters they have a right to use and enjoy. This marks a major milestone in CLF’s long-running efforts to secure clean water for all Vermonters.

The federal Clean Water Act is one of the most important and successful laws our nation ever enacted. Before its passage more than 40 years ago, massive volumes of raw sewage and industrial wastes flowed freely into our lakes and rivers. Polluters responsible for this mess faced little in the way of meaningful consequences. The patchwork of state permitting and enforcement programs Americans relied on to keep our waters safe and clean simply had too many holes in it.

The law’s passage reflected a national commitment to restoring and protecting all of our nation’s waters, ensuring that they are safe for drinking, fishing, swimming, and boating, with water quality that also supports healthy populations of fish and shellfish. It established a national goal of eliminating water pollution. As important as this law is, its effectiveness depends on its faithful execution by political appointees and career professional regulators at EPA and partner state clean water agencies like Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

In 2008, CLF acted on its longstanding concerns that Vermont’s waters were suffering from excessive pollution in part because state officials were falling far short of fulfilling all of their Clean Water Act responsibilities. CLF, with tremendous assistance from its able pro-bono counsel from the Vermont Law School’s Environmental and Natural Resources Legal Clinic,  petitioned EPA to order significant improvements in Vermont’s water pollution control permitting and enforcement efforts. If Vermont officials failed to make needed improvements, CLF asked EPA to take over the lead in issuing permits and enforcing against polluters in Vermont.

After several years of investigation by EPA and negotiations with state officials, the Corrective Action Plan EPA issued represents a validation of CLF’s core concerns. It also represents a positive re-commitment to the Clean Water Act by the administration of Governor Peter Shumlin. Among the positive corrective actions Vermont has taken or will take to better control pollution per the EPA plan are:

  • The final issuance of the state’s first ever permit to control pollution discharges from “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations”—animal feedlot operations meeting certain regulatory criteria—in a manner that complies with the Clean Water Act.
  • Commitments to increase annual inspections of actual and suspected “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” to detect unlawful pollution discharges and ensure that CAFO dischargers apply for and comply with Clean Water Act permits.
  • Changes to state law allowing citizens to have a voice in the resolution of Clean Water Act enforcement proceedings.
  • A plan for limiting the amount of nutrients discharged by municipal wastewater treatment plants into the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound.
  • Enforcement against the Village of Waterbury sewage treatment plant that will significantly reduce one of the largest single phosphorous discharges into Lake Champlain through installation of state-of-the-art technology
  • Conforming the state’s policy relating to the use of polluter’s penalty payments to EPA’s requirement
  • Implementing a requirement of the Clean Water Act to prevent the degradation of existing high quality waters

The declining health of Lake Champlain and numerous other Vermont waterways underscores how far we. By implementing all of the Corrective Actions outlined above, Vermont is taking an important step in the right direction toward clean water solutions. Vermonters’ quality of life, economic vitality, and maintenance of our state’s green “brand” requires nothing less.